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Sign bilingualism as a challenge

Over the last decades, the vitality of sign languages and, by extension, sign bilingualism, has been marked by seemingly contradictory processes (chapter 1). Changes in the area of information and communication technologies as well as an increased social and economic mobility have affected the life style and the social behaviour of deaf individuals, providing new opportunities for communication and congregation. Changes in the educational area, notably the general trend toward the preference of integration over segregation, have reduced the relevance of educational institutions for the intra-generational transmission of sign languages. Further, developments in the medical sciences and hearing aid technology have affected the size of the population of sign language users. Factors like these are indicative of the vulnerable dimensions of a type of bilingualism that is neither territorial nor commonly the result of parent-to-child transmission. Other developments, by contrast, make apparent how the vitality of a language can be enhanced through the empowerment of its users.

The gradual self-assertion of deaf individuals in the last decades of the 20th century has led to an increased perception of the deaf community and sign language in the society at large. The recognition of the deaf community as a linguistic minority group involves a change in the status attributed to a group hitherto characterised as a disability group. Historically, these developments are tied to the insights obtained into the nature of sign languages in linguistic research and to sociopolitical developments leading to the empowerment of linguistic minorities. Deaf activism has gained momentum in the course of the last years. The symbolic value of sign language as a marker of social identity lies at the centre of the notion of the deaf community as a linguistic minority group, and solidarity, based on the concept of attitudinal deafness, underlies the development of the more global concept of Deafhood.

The status of sign languages, their provision and use have been affected by activities of different stakeholders involved in sign language planning (section 1.2.3). The codification of the language, the elaboration of teaching/learning materials and the training of sign language teachers and interpreters are among the tasks that need to be tackled to raise the status of the language and to promote its inclusion in the education of deaf students. Among the most controversial activities are those that affect the development of the language. Although standardisation processes commonly follow from a functional expansion of the language, which creates a demand for the development of new terminology and registers, communication problems may arise in diverse situations, materials developed might not be effective and ethical dilemmas need to be confronted in the choice of a particular variety of the language. Part of the shortcomings encountered are related to the circumstance that the measures adopted are seldom elaborated and implemented through a coordinated action of all relevant stakeholders.

Despite the more local variables that distinguish the situation of sign languages and their users in diverse countries, there is agreement that both top- down and bottom-up activities are needed for the maintenance of sign bilingualism and its recognition on a par with other types of bilingualism. Furthermore, we have argued in favour of a sustainable type of planning in terms of a holistic approach that would be characterised by coordinated action and involvement of all actors, taking into consideration also the broader socio-political context.

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